The Fifth Estate Proves How Hard It Is to Make a Movie About the Internet
It’s really hard to make a movie on the internet. Not one that uses the internet to, say, raise money or distribute a film. No, what’s difficult is making a movie where more of the action takes place on the internet instead of IRL. Take, for example The Fifth Estate. The story of the secret-sharing site WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, as adapted from the book by former WikiLeaks spokesperson Daniel Domscheit-Berg, The Fifth Estate is a world where the fiction is stranger than the truth — even though it doesn’t have to be.
A dramatized version of the site’s rise to prominence by director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls), the film opens with a montage showing the evolution of the news throughout history, from early writings on walls to printing presses, news magazines, websites, and tablet editions. It illustrates, in a somewhat History Channel fashion, exactly where WikiLeaks’ efforts fit in the history of journalism and media — and it does so perfectly, contextualizing WikiLeaks without overstating its importance to modern media.
Unfortunately, The Fifth Estate goes to such great lengths in the following three acts to illustrate its point with cyber-thriller clichés and Beltway hand-wringing that it detracts from an otherwise compelling story. From the over-visualized online worlds — like an imaginary room full of empty desks that represents the non-existent WikiLeaks newsroom — to the dramatized State Department meltdowns meant to depict the fallout of WikiLeaks’ diplomatic cable release, The Fifth Estate takes one of the more fascinating and well-known stories of the Information Age and gilds the lily with visual metaphors and half-truths.
“[It’s] almost like going back to the basics of silent filmmaking – you are going to do some reading in this,” Condon told WIRED about his use of the cyber-visuals. “The question is: How to make that as immersive as possible. I think one of the things about a dramatized version as opposed to some of the very very good [documentaries] – Alex Gibney’s was wonderful – is that this is meant to give you an experience of, a sense of what it was like to be in the room.”
Ok, sure. But does the room have to be a metaphorical representation of the internet when the actual apartments/cafes/hacker spaces where the WikiLeaks team worked suffice? Probably not. In fairness, there is one moment when the aforementioned fake office is shown going up in flames as Domscheit-Berg (played by Daniel Brühl) deletes troves of WikiLeaks files that is poignant, even if a bit much, but simply showing the disappearing files got across the same message. And there is more than enough drama in the hurried scenes set in hacker conferences, the radical underground world of Berlin’s Tacheles, and the newsrooms of the world’s most prestigious newspapers to go around — dramatizing online chat doesn’t feel necessary.
In between those embellished moments, however, The Fifth Estate is a pretty good film. Based largely on Domscheit-Berg’s book Inside WikiLeaks: My Time With Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website as well as WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War On Secrecy, the film traces what is most essential about the WikiLeaks story, from Domscheit-Berg’s first meeting with Assange to the 2010 release of the “Collateral Damage” video and U.S. diplomatic cables. Its performers, particularly Cumberbatch and Brühl, do their characters justice and there are genuine moments of suspense, even if you — like most people — know how the story ends.
However, the liberties taken only begin with the virtual representations of cyber-life. The broad strokes of the story are there and true – WikiLeaks was born from Assange’s quest to release information and expose corruption, a mission came to a head with the “Cablegate” release in 2010 via The New York Times, Der Spiegel, and The Guardian – but the factualness of the details of the movie have been called into question, not surprisingly, on the internet.
Last month, WikiLeaks itself – alongside publishing a version of the movie’s script online – called the film “a work of fiction masquerading as fact” and took the film to task for implying that the release of diplomatic cables placed U.S. diplomats in jeopardy. Then last week the secret-spilling site posted a pre-production letter from Assange in which the site’s founder encouraged Cumberbatch not to take part in the film and told the actor “you will be used, as a hired gun, to assume the appearance of the truth in order to assassinate it.” Still others have called smaller details into question, like when Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger noted that he did not recall thanking New York Times editor Bill Keller for “not giving a shit” as he does in the film.
Of course everything gets dramatized in the movie version retelling, but there’s something in The Fifth Estate’s version that’s unnecessary. WikiLeaks is already on its way to becoming one of the most interesting stories of the 21st century and Assange one of its most interesting figures. It didn’t need dreamy visuals to demonstrate just how intense its impact was, and it didn’t need embellishment about things as trivial as the color of Assange’s hair. (The movie claims he bleaches it; WikiLeaks says that’s false.)
Yes, creative license is to be expected in a movie adaptation, where details are often amped up or reframed in order to increase tension and keep audiences engaged. Condon told WIRED he had no interest in creating a bad portrait of Assange, simply one of “a complex guy who is flawed.” And Cumberbatch responded to the WikiLeaks’ founder’s letter during a reddit AMA by saying that he was not a hired gun and that he wanted his performance to bring integrity to the project and give due to “a truly important figure of our modern times.” In that he succeeded, regardless of the script he was working from; his performance is extremely thoughtful and nuanced, and easily the movie’s saving grace.
But that doesn’t save it from the trap that has plagued modern cyber-thrillers from Hackers to The Net. The internet — and documents and troves of data it transmits and contains — are not characters. They don’t have feelings or personalities, and it’s hard to make drama out of what happens on them.
The Social Network is one of the few films to do it well, and even though it took its own liberties; the amount of time we actually spent watching Mark Zuckerberg program was minimal and it managed to depict the internet and tech culture in a way that didn’t induce the sort of eye-rolling from tech-savvy viewers that Fifth Estate likely will. While the film ostensibly took place in the world of Facebook, it sidestepped the pitfalls of the online thriller by never taking its gaze off of the sometimes funny, sometimes brilliant interactions between Mark Zuckerberg and his cofounders and partners (“A million dollars isn’t cool, you know what’s cool? … A billion dollars.”) The Fifth Estate attempts to do the same with Assange and his cohorts, but it gets muddled in explaining things and introducing unnecessary characters and loses its way. It’s a shame.
Regardless, it’s clear that Condon and Cumberatch weren’t trying to make a movie that would take down Assange or WikiLeaks – and they didn’t. Fifth Estate, despite its flaws and embellishments, does come out far more on the side of the truth-seekers. But in the process of trying to explain the Wikileaks and its online secret-sharing to a general audience, it managed to dumb down the world of the web in a way that seems alternately ostentatious and unnecessary. General audiences may not understand the nitty gritty technical details of online secret sharing, but a visualization of empty rooms lined with endless chairs don’t seem likely to help. Nor do they need to understand those details; simply understanding that WikiLeaks is a new online news-gathering tool will suffice.
Everything else is just political theater.
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